THE COUP D’ETAT OF AUGUST 8, 1983
A. General Considerations
1. In an atmosphere of malaise and lack of confidence in the electoral programs announced by General Ríos Montt, on August 8, 1983, a new coup occurred in Guatemala. It was headed by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores, who at the time was holding the post of Minister of Defense. In his initial statements, the new Guatemalan Chief of State informed the public that he would not assume the title of President which his predecessor had been using, but would continue to act as Minister of Defense as well as Chief of State. He offered to put into effect a program for return to democratic and constitutional government, promised to call elections, announced the suspension of the Courts of Special Jurisdiction, and stated that he would continue the struggle against subversives. In expressing his support for the judicial branch and his respect for law and the Constitution, he also criticized the way in which the government had been abused by a religious group to which the deposed General Ríos Montt belonged, and announced that the state of alarm which had been in effect since June 29, 1983 would be lifted immediately.
2. The plans of the new Government of Guatemala, which were conveyed through the Guatemalan Mission accredited to the OAS, state the following:
The army understands that it has assumed responsibility for the return to institutional rule, for which purpose it will clearly observe the points below.
First: Its firm decision to fight Marxist-Leninist subversion and any existing paramilitary groups, thus to protect the Guatemalan people; but beyond that protection we seek to understand, share and fight with the people, not only in the defense of their lives, their security and their freedom, but also to provide them with an increased well-being and respect for their dignity and to give them an opportunity to satisfy their vital needs and legitimate hopes.
Second: Grass-roots organizations will be strengthened through civil self-defense so as to perform a mission more in keeping with their objectives and capabilities, eliminating any possibility of religious or political manipulation which would conflict with the spiritual or moral sentiments of the majority of the population and the very essence of their customs and culture. Therefore it will seek the persuasive cooperation of communities through close coordination of purposes which will consolidate our nationality and essentially the cultural basis of our ethnic groups and their legitimate participation in the nation’s progress, maintaining their representation in the structures of political power as part of a most authentic democratization.
Third: The agencies for control and supervision of the state shall have our full support, and their independent action shall be guaranteed. The judicial branch may rest assured that we shall not interfere in its work in any way and that it must continue meting out justice in strict compliance with the law. We reconfirm our respect for an unconditional support to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. We appeal to its justices to help effectively to expedite and speed up the electoral process. We shall be responsible for proposing the changes indispensable to guarantee the right of defense to which every citizen must aspire. We urge the state advisors to contribute with positive and realistic proposals and not to allow themselves to be manipulated by the ambitions of a few. Their advisory functions shall be taken into account inasmuch as they contribute to the solution of the various problems the country faces. We pledge our absolute respect for the autonomy of the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala and of the other private universities. Academic work free of sectarianism is the most important contribution to the nation’s cultural well-being. The universities should not only contribute through scientific and technical research. They should also contribute and propose solutions that will benefit Guatemala.
Fourth: The people of Guatemala have an exceptional spiritual and religious wealth. We respect their faith and their traditions and we solemnly undertake to avoid foreign interference that would wound their sentiments. The multitudinous demonstration unprecedented in the history of Guatemala upon the visit of His Holiness, John Paul II, is obvious proof of our people’s devotion.
Fifth: We understand democracy not as a way to hold on to privileges for traditional minorities which, through economic power, have had a strong influence on political activity, but rather as an opportunity for the people as a whole to elect their leaders in fact and without coercion of any kind. We solemnly commit ourselves to scheduling the electoral process without subterfuge or selfish maneuvers. We are determined to respect human rights in fact. The authorities will spare no effort in guaranteeing such rights and will punish those who directly or indirectly attempt to restrict them. Freedom to express thought will be respected, and we recognize the informative and guiding work of the communications media. We appeal to the high sense of responsibility of the fourth state to help Guatemala positively and patriotically to reencounter its historic destiny.
Sixth: In keeping with the new spirit of identification with the interests of the majority of the people, we reaffirm that we support every process for gradual and democratic change in order to guarantee a fairer distribution of the wealth. We shall give preferential attention to the interests of the producers who work the land and to their associations, cooperatives or community organizations which seek the overall development of Guatemala. We shall study the possibility of making certain amendments to the tax reform laws recently enacted to protect the interests of the large majorities.
Seventh: Respecting our international commitments, we hereby express the will to comply strictly with international conventions, commitments and obligations. We express our deep concern with the crisis affecting the Central American region and, to the extent of our capability, we will help find formulas for understanding that will avoid aggravation of the crisis or even a possible military confrontation in the area. We follow with interest the efforts made by the governments of the Contadora Group, and we have taken note of the efforts of the United States to initiate a constructive dialogue among the parties in conflict. We affirm that in the last analysis the Central Americans themselves will be the ones to take the decisions that will make possible the establishment of peace and security in the region.
3. Despite the political change that has occurred in Guatemala and the sound criticisms the new government has made against the administration and conduct of General Ríos Montt, which agree fully with the Commission’s report on the human rights situation in the Republic of Guatemala, the IACHR believes that the report is still valid. Therefore, it has made changes in this report aimed at only bringing it up to date but not at replacing it, because it has yet to be shown that any fundamental change has occurred in that country.
B. First Steps of the New Government
1. Upon the downfall of General Efrain Ríos Montt, one of the first measures adopted by the new government headed by General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores was to lift the state of alarm that had been in force since June 29, 1983.
2. In addition, the new government promulgated by way of Decree Law Nº 89-93 of August 11, a new amnesty law aimed at political crimes related to common crimes in which individuals or groups belonging or not to subversive organizations were included.
The decree provided that interested parties could avail themselves of the amnesty during a 90 day period. The conditions stipulated required interested persons to present themselves to civil authorities, testify to their crimes and take an oath pledging that they would no longer participate in subversive activities, surrender their arms and ammunition or indicate where they are hidden. The decree is applicable to persons currently subject to the ordinary courts of law provided that they have not yet been judged and sentenced.
3. Another law announced by the new Guatemalan Head of State, after deposing General Ríos Montt, rescinded the Courts of Special Jurisdiction. It was later enacted as Decree Law 93-83, dated August 12, 1983, in the Chapter dealing with Justice and Due Process.
4. On October 1, 1983, the IACHR, sitting at its 61st session, learned that General Oscar Humberto Mejía Víctores had abolished the Council of State.
C. Broadening of the Guarantees contained in the Fundamental Statute of
1. On August 11 the Government of General Mejía Víctores by way of Decree Law Nº 91-83, broadened the individual guarantees contemplated in the Fundamental Statute of Government and altered Decree Law 24-82 as to the rights of legal defense and arrest without a dully authorized warrant issued by a court of law.
2. The Decree established:
Article 1: Paragraphs 10 and 12 of Article 23 shall be altered as follows:
“10) No one may be arrested or imprisoned except for criminal causes and by virtue of an order or warrant issued in accordance with the law by a duly authorized judicial authority. Such a warrant shall not be necessary in cases in flagrante delicto or where the suspect flees the scene of his crime. Arrested persons shall be immediately placed at the disposition of the appropriate judicial authority and detained in penal centers for suspects as opposed to prisons where convicts are serving their sentences.”
“12) The legal defense of the person and his rights is inviolable.
No one may be convicted without having been confronted, heard and tried in conformance with the principles of due process by a competent court of law or competent previously established authorities in which the formalities and essential guarantees of the same are respected. Nor may anyone be temporarily affected in his rights except through procedures that fulfill these minimal requisites.
Nevertheless, in cases of fraud of embezzlement of public property, the immediate recuperation of the same may be carried out subject to the interested parties appeal for revocation or recovery through an administrative-contentious law suit.”
Article 2: Article 86 shall be modified thusly:
“Article 86: Ordinary trial courts shall be composed of judges who are licensed attorneys of recognized ability and integrity, Guatemalan nationals in keeping with Article 9 of this Statute and appropriate bar rules.
The Supreme Court of Justice shall take necessary measures to create a system which allows a selection of judges based on their personal and professional qualifications. Likewise, in keeping with this principle, the Court shall establish complete and accurate lists of licensed attorneys so as to assist in the establishment of the Judicial Branch of Government. For these purposes, the Court shall issue the appropriate rules and requirements.”
D. Final Considerations
The Commission has received and seen with great concern recent information which indicates that the violence occurring in rural areas is still occurring, the exodus of Guatemalan peasants to Chiapas, Mexico has continued, especially in the area of San Marcos, and that in the cities, the violence is tending to increase and there are now signs that the sinister death squads have reappeared.
The Commission trusts that the new Government of Guatemala will carry out its announced steps to achieve respect for human rights, that it will fulfill the newly published political calendar and adopt all necessary measures for the purpose of putting into practice the recommendations contained in this Report.